Geoffrey Owens, Working Artists, and Me

Artists should start forgiving themselves -- and each other -- for wanting to pay their bills.

Sometimes artists need to make some money.

Sometimes artists don’t do art.

The recent controversy, partly ginned up by Fox News, over the work-shaming of Geoffrey Owens got my gears grinding. I feel a need to address some of the points made in the excellent New Yorker article that addressed the outing of Owens, who dares to make a living in a way not connected to the arts.

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I’m a rarity in the non-Broadway theater industry; for 24 years, I’ve made my living almost exclusively in theater, music or teaching the arts on some level. I’ve had precious few “day jobs” or “real people jobs” or “grown-up jobs,” or whatever condescending label you’d like to put on it. I worked on a farm for a few autumns as a kid. I worked at Radio Shack in the ‘90s for a few months and returned the following Christmas season. I worked at the Gap for a couple months when I first moved to NYC. Other than that, I’ve hustled my way through pretty much any theater job in any aspect of the industry that anybody would pay me a living (or almost living) wage.

There are a lot of reasons this has been a good thing. I like to think it has made me a more well-rounded artist. By running a sound board and serving as an assistant stage manager and selling merchandise and arranging and being a dramaturge and learning how to hang a grid, I’ve learned about aspects of theater that have made a better producer and artistic director, my primary foci. It also meant a lifetime of borderline poverty; missing a month of rent here and there, defaulting on bills, ruining my credit, occasionally having to borrow money from one of my sainted siblings, etc. As I approach 40, I’m a fairly bright guy who’s built a pretty impressive portfolio of team leadership and administrative skills yet still quakes in his boots about submitting to be an assistant manager at a Kwik Trip. Why?

Because of ego. Because of ego and pride and one-upmanship and — I don’t know, maybe good old-fashioned smugness? I think I’m a little more open to things now that I’m a parent, but when I lived in NYC and times were tight, I was terrified of temping or working at a Starbucks or something like that, because my peers might see me and think I wasn’t being “serious” about being an artist or had failed in doing so, but even that feels like chutzpah to me. The main reason I didn’t want to deign to work a “grown-up” job was because of the shame I knew I would feel if someone who knew me as an artist saw me doing something that wasn’t what I would consider art. The Owens situation certainly demonstrates the error of that perspective, and it’s time that artists start forgiving themselves and, perhaps more importantly, forgiving each other for wanting to pay our bills and not saddle ourselves with a lifetime of debt. Do I hate it? Yes. Do I hate the idea of it? Sure.

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I’m at an interesting crossroads as a professional. I’m coming out of a job I liked but that may have been slowly killing me. I’ve run four theater companies to varying degrees of success. I’ve served as a guest artist at several colleges, ranging from urban community schools to the Ivy League. I’ve served as a director and teaching artist at arguably the biggest and most influential summer summer theater program in the world for almost a dozen years. But now I’m a Dad; I have rent and bills to pay, I have debt that is growing, and I have an incredibly bright and exciting seven-year-old son who is eating at the pace of a 15-year-old on crack. For maybe the first time in my life, I’m willing to consider a career shift while I’m still young enough to do so in order to provide for my son. Could I continue my career as a freelancer and make ends meet? Maybe. But that would mean time away from my son, extra child-care burdens on his mother, and me returning to a life constantly bopping from state to state with a suitcase that never gets unpacked. Even an actor that makes Actors’ Equity minimum on Broadway, the pinnacle of a stage actor’s career, is only earning around $100K a year. It’s the apex of their craft and they make the same salary as an entry-level CPA at a large firm.

There are probably aspects of all this that may seem attractive to the uninitiated but let me tell you, it grows weary on the other side of a decade or two. I face a path that may require me to take a “survival” job and actually do things that don’t artistically or aesthetically enrich me. I am humble in my realization and acknowledgment that I am incredibly blessed to have done what I love for a living for over half of my life; now it’s time for me to accept that it’s time to do what I need to do to feed my kid, whatever that means. There are millions of Americans who work a job they don’t love every single day to pay their bills and it’s downright elitist (though I don’t generally consider that a bad word) and douche-y for me to dismiss the possibility that I do something outside of the arts world to pay my bills. Owens is doing what he needs to do. We shouldn’t judge Owens, or any artist, for doing the same. We have bills to pay and kids to feed and some sense of normalcy to enjoy and provide. Why should we hold artists to any other standard because they want to make art?